New media has blurred the distinction between ‘journalist’ and ‘everyone else’, creating significant difficulties in trust for the news-consuming public. The professional journalist is effectively part of a brand that has, over time, built a reputation as a source of credible information. Writers for CNN or the NewYork Times are given a certain level of trust by association that is not afforded to individual bloggers. This is because, free from journalistic codes of practice, blogging ethics are generally left to individual discretion.
Practical limitations of new media
Certain deficiencies have exacerbated the public’s willingness to trust blogs as a primary news source.
Few web-based journalistic ventures are self-financing, making it difficult to maintain quality hard news output. Virtually all of online news is repackaged information originating in professional newsrooms. Online ‘original’ news tends to gravitate towards opinion, with Bruns asserting that, “facts are increasingly drowned out by incessant speculation and interpretation.”
There still exist many accuracy limitations on social media, including the inability to verify the vast range of sources, discern truth amidst opinion and misinformation and retain objectivity.
Eli Pariser, chief executive of Upworthy, also asserts, “The New York Times often promotes articles on the front page that, if you look at the Web metrics, do very poorly…but the editors make a decision that people need to know about a war in a foreign country.” Bloggers are simply unable to complete this investigative public interest journalism.
Due to these limitations, 67% of journalists describe the quality of internet journalism as poor (29%) or average (38%). The convergence review recently asserted: “New media does not yet (and may never) command substantial influence over Australian consumers in the way that traditional media still do.”
Faltering faith in MSM
This view, however, seems to be oblivious to the current state of the mainstream media. In 2013, 27.8% of US citizens identified social media as their primary news source, only behind newspapers (28.8%) and TV news (59.5%). Social media as a news source has risen as mainstream media continues to lose public credibility.
Meanwhile, 63% of American adults surveyed believe that the information of social networks is around the same quality or of higher quality than that from traditional media outlets.
But what has caused this shift in the public consciousness?
Questionable MSM practices
Undemocratic media concentration
In Australia, News Limited has control of 70% of the nation’s metropolitan newspapers, 50% of Foxtel and half of the Premier Media Group. High ownership concentration can cause news media to merely represent the commercial concerns of a powerful minority.
Blogging seeks to reallocate the power of information from media owners to the public. Generally excluded by professionals, individuals become able to make distinctive contributions to the public sphere.
Acceptance of official discourse
In 1960 there were 0.75 PR agents for every working journalist. In 2012, the ratio stands at four PR agents for every working journalist. Consequently, nearly 55% of news stories are driven by public relations. As a result, news can tend to regurditate government spin, exemplified by the media coverage of the Iraq War.
In the US, mainstream news’ failure to critically assess WMD claims (for fear of being branded ‘unpatriotic’) allowed the popularization of alternative commentators such as the HuffingtonPost.
Contemporary journalism has shifted from truly informing the public about policy debate to being merely another source of entertainment. Cherry-picking of evidence, personal smearing and sloganeering are all welcomed as media outlets fear that any substantial analysis may bore readers.
Unique credibility of blogs
With the finite space and time of traditional news, the public are forced to blindly trust the accuracy of the news organization. In an online environment though, journalists can show their sources and expand the depth of any given story through linking to other websites. These links allow readers to judge for themselves the accuracy of a journalist’s assertions, encouraging a more responsible press.
Marketplace of ideas ‘enforces’ quality
It is also important to remember that, although new media lack the external regulation of the mainstream, market competition continues to pressure quality for the most part.
In Dennis v United States, Justice Douglas echoed the idea of self-correcting free expression, asserting, “When ideas compete in the market for acceptance, full and free discussion exposes the false and they gain few adherents.”
Blogs which uphold the standards of the fourth estate will be propelled into the public consciousness and those that do not will quietly fade away. In this competition for public legitimacy, blogs such as the Huffington post are compelled to be accurate.
A 2006 court decision effectively recognised bloggers as journalists for the purposes of invoking the reporter’s privilege, under a state shield law. In the interests of the First amendment, a reasonable distinction between legitimate and illegitimate journalism cannot be made without hindering the necessary competition of a free market place of ideas.
Quality above all
Furthermore, the definition between professional and non-professional journalism is ultimately an unhelpful one. The most important factor in designating credibility should require the simple question:
“Does my information source facilitate public discourse?”
This question alone should place journalism either inside or outside the ideal of the fourth estate role. Journalism which is investigative rather than repackaging, critical rather than propagandizing and well-informed rather than speculative, is credible, regardless of its professional status.